Control, or the Myth of It: Mental Health and Addiction

By Tracey Helton Mitchell 04/20/20

Dealing with anxiety and PTSD without having substances to block my emotions has been a challenge, even from the earliest days.

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Black and white image of woman sitting on bed, appearing sad or depressed
I run through all the worst-case scenarios without even leaving the comfort of my well-worn couch. ID 176875715 © Piyapong Thongcharoen | Dreamstime.com

In the twenty-first year of my recovery, I was minding my own business when the universe provided me with one of my biggest challenges to date.

I was sitting on the couch on an ordinary night scrolling through my social media when I felt both a tightness in my chest and a rapidly escalating inability to breathe. I had experienced these feelings before many times in the late nineties when I was still going hard. Only this time, this wasn’t brought on by the injection of too much cocaine (or even like the time I ended up in the emergency room with chest pains after drinking too much coffee in a meeting). This was something entirely different that would alter my daily living,

As I sat in an assless smock on a bed, separated by a curtain from an eighth grader vomiting into a bedpan, I felt my legs start to shake uncontrollably. What the fuck was going on? I was asked a series of questions. A list of possible health issues was ruled out. The kind doctor with the round face had a suggestion. Did I want to take an ativan?

But I’m in recovery...my mind trailed off. An internal conflict quickly devolved into a different kind of panic. Wait, would this be considered a relapse? The 12-step program spun around in my mind. Then the rational part of my brain kicked in, overruling my own internal stigma. Yes, I want to breathe. I will take the medication. Thank you. Sigh. There are times in recovery when drugs that used to be “fun drugs” become “I need this medication.” This was one of those times.

As the panic attack slowly subsided, I was awash in emotions. I felt exhausted from the physical residue of what had just occurred. I felt angry at myself for having to drag my ass to the emergency room at ten o’clock at night while my children lay sleeping in their beds. Finally, I felt as if I was a failure, though it took a few sessions of therapy to tease that out. The way I viewed my life versus how I was actually doing were far, far apart. How had I let myself get to this point? I knew my recovery from substances requires a level of daily maintenance but I had forgotten what happens when I ignore my mental health issues.

Many mornings since the pink cloud wore off in the late nineties, I wake up with an existential crisis. I lie under my two comforters in a pool of sweat following a four am hot flash, wondering why I’m still here. There are a few levels to this why. There is the why of how I survived an addiction that killed so many others. Why am I so lucky? I have a good life, great friends, kids that find me loveable. Why am I here? (As in, what is my purpose?) So many questions and not many answers, especially when I’ve slowly drifted away from the spiritual center I had in the early days of recovery.

Growing up firmly entrenched in codependency, I like to have a “reason” for my being. I am uncomfortable when I am choosing my own path, my own way. I like to go where I’m needed. Unfortunately for the still sick part of myself, my life in recovery has reached a level of stability. I am no longer providing a hit for my dopesick partner or wondering where my next drink is coming from. The years of crisis management have settled into a place where my free time involves thinking about my wants and my needs. Who’d have believed this would be possible? I fucking hate sitting with myself. Whether it is filling my time up with work, service commitments, friend drama, or mindlessly looking through websites, I like to have my time filled. Anxiety manifests itself in “what am I going to do next?!” I begin to spiral when there is no clear path, no project. I run through all the worst-case scenarios without even leaving the comfort of my well-worn couch.

As a survivor of sexual abuse, at times I’ve created a rigid system in place for my mental and physical safety. I like to know where I am going at all times. I like the details, I like to know my escape routes. I like to know everything that might happen so I can work out contingencies in my mind. It is nearly impossible for me to relax unless I feel like I have gone through a complete mental list of the details. There are times when it feels like the world cannot spin on its axis without my personal attention.

Because of these accumulated stressors, my brain decided to halt the machinery, forcing a hard stop. The mental load of having to be in control of everything 24/7 created a system overload. The perceived threats and diminished joy in daily situations made my life come to a crashing halt. My body felt like a bear was chasing me. In reality, I was running away from all of my problems. The rigid system of control can only exist holding things together for so long before it starts to crack like a rubber band that has aged in the sun. So here I am, patching things back together.

Dealing with anxiety and PTSD without having substances to block my emotions has been a challenge, even from the earliest days. I manage it with varying degrees of success. Yet it has been occurring in such increasing frequency, it is no longer possible to ignore: Excessive worry over my health; examining every ache and pain; recounting every conversation and pointing out my every error. Anxiety is the constant regurgitation of all outcomes versus allowing things to just be without my assistance.

What have I discovered through this process? That as ridiculous as it may sound to me with 22 years sober, I need to turn things over to the universe or the process or whatever order exists outside myself. I can’t control everything. I need to meditate. I need to journal. I need to ask myself for permission to tune everything out for a set period of time each day to unwind. I’ve started reading books again. Taking the dog for long walks. I got on a psychiatric medication that helps and I actually refill it on time. I put my phone down when I pet the cat. I planted a tiny garden. Most of all, I have given myself permission to be human. I have learned to be in the present moment and enjoy the gift known as the present, as simple as that may sound. I don’t know why I made it this far but I know I want to enjoy whatever is left of my second chances.

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Tracey Helton Mitchell is a harm reduction advocate living in the SF Bay Area. She is author of The Big Fix: Hope After Heroin and presents nationally on issues related to the opioid crisis. You can find her on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.